B. Sharise Moore’s 2021Dr. Marvellus Djinn’s Odd Scholars is a standalone young-adult historical fantasy.
1920: four lucky scholars will win a chance to tour Dr. Marvellus Djinn’s the Motherland, a theme park no doubt as wonderous as its creator. After all, how could the Scholar of Sorcery (widely known to have survived a white lynch mob) fail to create something unparalleled in theme park history?
Unlike certain candy-based special tours, selection is not dependent on a combination of luck and enough funds to purchase a prodigious quantity of chocolate bars. Instead, each victor is the best in their respective fields, Strength, Ingenuity, Chemistry, and Magical Prowess, as tested by the Mighty Bicep Competition, the Juvenile Ingenuity Competition, the Boys Chemistry competition, and the Dueling Crystal Balls-Magical Prowess Competition, respectively. The victors are Omen (Strength), Brenda (Ingenuity), Elliot (Chemistry), and Clair (Magic).
Arriving at the Motherland, the four winners discover the contests at which they triumphed were merely the initial stages of their quests. Within the Motherland further challenges will be found. The stakes are much higher; death seems to be a very real possibility for the quartet should their talents fail them.
Time itself is no barrier to the youngsters. However, their foray to the world of the 21stcentury reveals an unpleasant truth to the four African Americans: the United States a century hence will be just as hostile to black people as it is in the 1920s; lethal racist violence is just as permissible as it is in their home era.
Back in 1920, racist Sheriff Dodge has his eye on Djinn’s land. The quartet’s final test may be saving the park itself.
The author cites Roald Dahl1 as a favourite author, name checking Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and The Witches. The parallels with Charlie are therefore homage and not parallel construction. Still, the winners win by means other than luck and money. A significant difference.
You might think that the US after Plessy v. Fergusonwould have been peachy keen with the idea of an entrepreneur like Djinn creating a theme park to cater to African Americans. Or at least, someone who never paid any attention to American history might. In practice, not only did the whites object to sharing, they objected to African Americans having anything of their own. Thus, Dodge’s scheme2.
What follows isn’t a criticism, just a sad observation: it’s depressing that there has been so little progress in moving beyond racism between 1920 and 2020. And beyond? Will it ever get better?
You might think that the novel would be bleak, but it isn’t. The characters are engaging and get to have some victories, while the story moves along nicely.
1: This seems a good place to admit I’ve never read Dahl.
2: One of the kids optimistically plans to create a cure for bigotry. One suspects this won’t work on any bigot whose core motivation is that they think they are better off under with a society rigidly stratified along racial lines.